Southwest Airlines CEO Prepares for Winter in Denver to Avoid Last Year’s Meltdown

Sept. 21, 2023
Southwest's Denver team is preparing for winter with an increase in deicing pads from six to 10, a 60% boost in deicing trucks and more deicing staff, with thousands currently in training.

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan says he is taking precautions months before winter storms blow through Denver International Airport to avoid repeating last year’s holiday meltdown.

“That can’t happen again,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “But it’s made us a better company.”

Jordan aims to learn from the carrier’s multi-day disruption in December, which resulted in thousands of canceled flights and stranded travelers. Looking forward, he’s preparing his Denver team with an increase in deicing pads from six to 10, a 60% boost in deicing trucks and more deicing staff, with thousands currently in training.

That means “more of everything: more people, more trucks, more deicing pads,” Jordan said.

Southwest is experimenting with closed-bucket deicing trucks and trucks that will blow forced air to keep the ground clean, as “one of the issues we had was just aircraft basically stuck to the ground in ice,” Jordan said. And the airline is also switching to software called SureWeather, which he described as an on-airport weather station that United Airlines already uses.

“I feel really good about the winter,” he said.

With 17 years of operations at DIA, Southwest counts as the airport’s second-biggest carrier behind United, but Jordan outlined plans for further growth. Next year, the airline aims to operate 40 gates, with the potential for another Concourse C expansion.

It also invested around $100 million into building a new general-use building to house cargo, provisioning and more.

“Denver’s by far our largest operation, and still growing,” Jordan said.

The airline has other factors contending against it, though, including the rise in fuel prices from $70 a barrel to $90-95, a lag in the return of business travel and open contract negotiations with its unionized pilots and flight attendants.

Jordan’s timeline for wrapping those negotiations is “hopefully this fall,” with the more complex contract sections of scheduling rules and rates remaining.

“We want them to be paid,” he said.

On Wednesday, the airline’s flight attendants picketed in Denver as the carrier’s management held its corporate event. They’re pressing for a new agreement that includes “control over their personal schedules when not at work,” better health insurance coverage, “access to food and a safe place to rest when traveling on the job” and improved pay, according to a Tuesday news release.

“We have dedicated crew members sleeping on airport floors while management enjoys lucrative bonuses and shareholders get prioritized,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, in a statement. “It’s not just an issue of labor and compensation; it’s a glaring example of corporate greed at its worst.”

An agreement in principle didn’t pass the board to go out for a vote, so the company and the flight attendants’ union are in mediation right now, Jordan said. “The mediator initially said, ‘Fine, I’m going to put this thing on ice, and we’re not going to talk until January of ’24.”

But the parties reached an agreement not to take a pause, so “I’m hopeful that we’ll make progress there.”

The airline’s pilots also picketed at Denver’s McGregor Square on Wednesday “to demonstrate their disapproval with the pace” of contract negotiations, which they say are overdue by more than three years. Those pilots have pushed back against Southwest with threats of strikes.

Jordan admits that “we’ve been in negotiations a long time,” but “they’re in Chicago talking today.”

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Contract negotiations have put pressure on the U.S. airline industry for years, although Delta’s pilots approved a new contract in March and American Airlines’ pilots reached an agreement in August. That leaves United and Southwest as the major players in limbo.

This year, United pilots and flight attendants have also demonstrated in Denver.

“We’re continuing to work with the Association of Flight Attendants toward an industry-leading agreement,” said United spokesperson Russell Carlton.

Jordan remains hopeful about operations at Denver, with his team “more staffed than before COVID.”

Ultimately, “our business is very strong,” he said. “There’s been an awful lot of interest in, ‘Are the airlines seeing weakness creep in?’ And we’re just not.”

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